x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Houghton speaks up for players

At the Indian football team's training camp in Dubai, the national coach rues the lack of training facilities back home.

Bob Houghton, left, admitted he had some strong words to say about the plight of Indian football, but reasoned it was time to speak up.
Bob Houghton, left, admitted he had some strong words to say about the plight of Indian football, but reasoned it was time to speak up.

DUBAIi // India is a land of contradictions, a paradox where prosperity and poverty share the headlines; a nation where skyscrapers tower over shanties and IT wizards are employed by uneducated millionaires. As in life so in sports. While cricketers are idolised and glamorised, sportsmen of another ilk live a life of anonymity and struggles. While cricket bathes in riches, football is the poor cousin, without a training ground for their national team. And that is not an exaggeration.

The Indian national football team are training at the Emirates Sevens ground in Dubai since they have no training facilities available back home. There are a couple of grounds in Goa that they could have used, but the monsoons have made even those ragged facilities unusable. "Normally at this time, we would be training in India," said Robert Douglas "Bob" Houghton, the coach of the Indian team. "We would have trained in Goa, but as you know the rains make it difficult for us to train there.

"And there is nowhere else in India for us to train. That sounds like a remarkable statement, but it is in fact true. "It is even more remarkable when you come here, or when you go to Qatar, where we are going to play the Asian Cup, or, for that matter, if you go anywhere else among the real football playing nations in Asia today. "If you go to China, Japan or Korea, particularly Saudi Arabia, the facilities are fantastic. And we didn't even have a training ground to train on before we left India."

As a frustrated Houghton, a prolific former striker with English club Fulham in the 1960s, looked around for options, Raul Fernandes, managing director of Gulf International Promotions, helped organise a 10-day camp in Dubai for the team. The UAE Football Association extended a helping hand too and the Savoy Group of Hotels stepped in to host the visitors. Looking at the facilities available at the Emirates Sevens, Houghton could not help but compare the plight of his national team players back home.

"It often amuses me when Indian journalists ask us when we are going to qualify for the World Cup," said the 61-year-old, who has managed the Chinese and Uzbek national teams earlier, and many other clubs around the world, including Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad, Bristol City, FC Zurich and the Colorado Rapids. "What I would like to do is take them on these trips with us so that they can look where we are training today, for example, at the Emirates Seven.

"But we could have trained at any number. On the last two times we have been here, we have trained at different training grounds and they have all been very good. "We have got two teams in Kolkata that have got a very big fan base and bigger reputations. They have been around for 100 years, but don't have a training ground. That is not acceptable today if we are trying to move things forward." Lack of the facilities is not the only problem; there is a complete lack of professionalism as Houghton points out.

"You know, our champion club [Churchill Brothers] last season had no assistant coach, no fitness coach, no goal-keeping coach, no physio, no doctor, no training ground," he said. "And they are our champions. "Now I say that to you because I have been in India for three years and I am fed up of saying it to people who don't listen. It's not fair to the players, they deserve much better." Despite these obstacles, the Indian team under Houghton were able to book their spot for the 2011 Asian Cup; they made the finals for the first time since 1984 by winning the eight-team 2008 AFC Challenge Cup at home, defeating Tajikistan 4-1 in the final.

The "Bhangra Boys" also won the Nehru Cup at home in 2007 and will be defending the title in August. The ongoing camp in Dubai is part of the preparation for that tournament. On July 7, the team will fly out to Barcelona for a month-long camp. "The players, if we use boxing parlance, punch above their weights," added Houghton. "What the players have achieved over the last two years is considerable.

"I am already at war back in India and I am sure these statements will put me at an even bigger war when I get back. "But it's important to say it because other countries are moving forward quicker than we are." arizvi@thenational.ae